Any time is a good time to re-read Jane Austen. But midsummer, when the weather is hot and we escape to the hammock, or the cool basement, or the dock at the lake, is just about perfect. I have re-read most of the books, many times. My favorite, from age seventeen on, has been Pride and Prejudice. Every time I try to see how Jane did it, how she conjures a world, a society, a character, with so few words, such lively dialogue. Jane herself thought P & P was polished a little too brightly, that is, edited down to its core. But no one has complained about that, Jane, except re-readers who wish there was more of your lovely magic. In later years I’ve found Persuasion, her last finished novel, to have such a core of strong belief in yourself — in the character of Anne Eliot — that I’ve re-read it many times as well.
A few weeks ago V.S. Naipaul made himself famously unpopular by stating that he thought Jane Austen was sentimental. According to the Guardian: “Of Austen he said he ‘couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.’” In fact, if he deigned to read Austen he would find sentimentality is the farthest thing from her mind. Very much a child of the Age of Reason, she disdained the sentimental and romantic and was suspicious of anything relating to strong emotion, especially if it overtook one’s wits. (This is of course the theme of Sense and Sensibility, the clash of Reason and the Romantic.) A person in an Austen novel is often regarded, and described, as having the correct opinions. This is the highest praise. To be educated and well-informed, to observe the actions of others and learn from their mistakes, to think and not be swayed by silly notions like lust and glittering gowns. That is why women especially love Jane Austen: she understands our need to be taken seriously, even — especially — in a world that still includes people like V.S. Naipaul.
The Washington Post ran an article Five Myths About Jane Austen recently. Worth a read for all Janeites who might come into contact with a Sir Vidia. And the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, where Shakespeare and other literary greats live on, just spent $1.6 million on the fragment of The Watsons Jane left unfinished. I’ve read a version finished by Joan Aiken called Emma Watson. (I’ll read almost anything related to Jane.) Aiken’s version was disappointing; I should have known better. You could tell just where Aiken took up the story; there were all sorts of calamities like overturned coaches. In Austen one talks about overturned coaches but they never actually happen. The world outside can be frightening, full of war and death and accidents. But inside one of Jane’s books life is sane and incredibly safe, women are valued for their minds and opinions, and men are (mostly) gentlemen. That’s why we keep going back.